THE CRYSTAL CABINET (2008)
Dream play with delicious effects
Rarely have I visited a performance where so many art forms have been combined on stage at the same time. Images, music and text blend into a very beautiful stage building where we, in the near future, follow the struggle of some people that try to save the world from destruction, in a last desperate struggle. Mankind, in its vigorous appetite for energy, has destroyed the environment in which she lives.
We meet the chairman who, in blind belief in science, wants to launch an experiment before it has been properly developed; a secretary who is significantly more doubtful and a volunteer who is prepared to expose herself to the experiment. We also meet the scientist Blake (a resurrection of the English 1700th-century poet) who has invented a way to reduce energy consumption for mankind by entering into a so-called Crystal Cabinet.
Overall, the experiment is promising – only a slight side effect seems to affect the volunteer, however – on further testing it becomes increasingly obvious that the side effects will be too negative. Only when man has learned ”what is enough” by experiencing ”what is more than enough” can one come to a solution of the problem. The music is of a very straight-forward kind. On some occasions, for instance when Angela, the volunteer, for the first time enters the cabinet, the ballad is not far away. It is simple and very beautiful. And above all quite melodic. I really like the musical language that permeates the entire opera.
The singers perform overall with excellence. However, the opera is given a further dimension by the two roles that Claudine Ulrich and Jan Vesala perform. They are dancers originally but contribute with vocal performances as well. The contrast between the professional singers’ virtuoso vocal rendering and the dancers’ somewhat more normal dito allows for a very luscious effect that increases the proximity to the stage for the audience. For example, when John Erik Eleby and Jan Vesala present the experiment, the mix between song and sprech-gesang becomes something that literally brings us listeners into the story.
Kristina Hansson’s play with a fly (The Fly) is a great vocal number and Johan Christensson performs several songs where you as listener really get your fair part of fine singing.
All this is accompanied by an enhanced Norrbotten NEO. As far as they are concerned, one is used to hearing them perform excellently, and I can imagine that resigning CEO Kjell Englund will fall asleep tonight with a smile on his lips when this composite of his two creations, the chamber opera and NEO – harvests such a success. As you notice, I am very impressed with this performance. However, there is so much more to tell but that does not fit in this review. Just take all the video animations, beautifully and truly contributing to the overall rendering of the work, all the amazing sounds that arise through the combination of electronics and acoustic instruments. It cannot be described as it must be seen or heard. Take the opportunity now when the work goes on tour.
Mother earth off course
There is no doubt that the English writer and artist William Blake (1757-1827) was literally unknown and questioned during his life and likewise he is today regarded as a highly influential person in poetry and visual arts. In several of his works there is an almost incomprehensible mix of mythological images linked to the realm of war and misery of his times. He was difficult then, and for many, too, would be that still today. Piteå Chamber Opera, which for ten years has become known as an ensemble that illuminates and clarifies different aspects of human nature, further proved this with the performance of the newly composed chamber opera The Chrystal Cabinet on Saturday night. It is a highly multi-dimensional performance, using advanced electronic solutions that enable interactive scenes where the movements of dancers and singers on stage correspond to interfaces for voices and soundscapes. The movements also created projected text fragments that show Blake’s highly original way of writing poems where his word compositions were more or less illegible, but nonetheless gave associations. The stage, signed Lene Juhl and Mark Viktov, is simple, with an enthroned translucent vertical tunnel passage for the singers on the one side – and the gold-colored crystal cabinet on the other. The whole background consists of a projection screen that constantly shows more or less authentic worldly images of war and misery but also psychedelic color patterns in fast changes in the other of the eleven tableaux.
Carl Unander-Scharin’s opera The Crystal Cabinet is inspired by Blake’s artistic endeavour, and has clear connection to humanity´s current neglection of Mother Earth. It is a fictional depiction of futuristic societies in dissolution, in other words, societies and an earth in a nightmarish state. It is approaching a kind of apocalyptic pandemic of worldwide character. The three singers are largely equal even though there are separate sections for them in the 80-minute performance. But taking on a total of 10 roles requires great flexibility, something that the three singers possess. Kristina Hansson shapes her roles with a recognizable stage presence and her powerful soprano – with both clarity and width – has not only a striking ring but also a characteristic character that further adds the performance.
The tenor Johan Christenson carries four roles on his lot, but despite that he was able to easily change his mind and quickly change his renderings. Certainly, his vocal projection is slightly slim in certain passages, but still he makes a safe and complete rendering. However, the singer that I think has the most convincing appearance, is John Erik Eleby, who performs as Blake himself. His voice is impressive with its persistent sound and colour. Unfortunately, director Keith Turnbull does not fully succeed in this task. The stage poses are sometimes stiff and the motion patterns are not convincing.
The dancers play a central role in the opera, not only for the dance’s expressive possibilities on an individual level, but also for the interactive parts with recorded sound. The choreographic expression of the dancers Claudine Ulrich and Jan Vesala takes place with great physical presence and control. Conductor Mats Rondin manages the little chamber ensemble, with members from Norrbotten NEO to a close and well-spoken interpretation of Carl Unander-Scharin’s music. It lines up beautiful arias but also dramatically breaking tones, intersecting Baroque style and dreamy contemporary style. The Chrystal Cabinet is an exploratory opera, albeit in a gloomy perspective, but also allowing the listeners to enter into their own imaginary realm of possible solutions.
With this performance, the now-departing CEO for Piteå Kammaropera, Kjell Englund, has completed his well-thought-out task during his ten-year period, namely depicting human nature from various aspects. In Umeå we have been able to follow the ensemble’s many pioneering productions, and they give a good balance many fantastic possibilities and versatile solutions of the operatic genres. Opera is a largely fictional art form even when reflecting our modern era. To quote Blake himself, ”What’s enough cannot be known until you know what’s more than enough”.
(Västerbottenskuriren, Bengt Hultman, Oct 19, 2008)
Brutally beautiful dystopia
When life becomes overwhelming, the stressed American can enter a so-called Flotation spa to transcend on a bed of salt. But whoever enters the 2028 Crystal cabinet – the name of the title of Carl Unander-Scharin’s one-act opera – does not do it for therapeutic purposes but in order to save the last rest of mankind.
The intention is to free the soul from the body in a more energy-efficient manner. But after three visits in the cabinet struck by strange experiences based on different Blake motifs, the subject (performed by dancer Claudine Ulrich) has become completely paralyzed. She was bitten by a worm hiding in an imaginary flower.
The work has been commissioned by Piteå Kammaropera, which under Kjell Englund’s ten-year term, as CEO, has explored human nature from different aspects. The Crystal Cabinet puts the logical exclamation mark after this period of his overall planning.
The book for this dystopian morality is written by the composer in collaboration with the Canadian director Keith Turnbull and is braided by wise words and metaphors by the English visionary and author William Blake. The title, from his famous poem dating from 1803, is the name of the egg-shaped enclosure of crystal that the inventor, Master Blake, has built and that is now being tested in his underground laboratory.
In this future depiction, no one can live anymore on the surface of the earth. Rainforests are burned and the land areas drenched by the melting waters from the glaciers and are haunted by apocalyptic storms. Lene Juhl’s and Mark Viktov’s brutal video show make it clear that the outrage is not a harmless tempesta a la Rossini, but rather something terrible that has already taken place.
What’s ”enough” for the planet, in Blake´s words, you cannot know until you’ve first experienced what ”is more than enough”. But all his thoughts are not easy to perceive in this sophisticated text – full of quotes – even though the composer’s melodious, mellow, medievally inspired and dreamlike tone language creates a room for the listener to enter. But the cocoon of music moves faster than the imagery of the text – faster than the brain is able to process. Preferably, the libretto should have distributed together with the ticket.
It is my only point of view in opposition to an otherwise phenomenal performance. For those who wish to groom their jealousy, a visit to Acusticum in Piteå is strongly recommended. It does not stop at the ideal premises; When Mats Rondin lifts the baton over Norrbotten music’s solid ensemble for contemporary music, he meets the gaze from hand-picked top musicians, such as violinist Christian Svarfvar, pianist Mårten Landström and hornist Sören Hermansson.
The fourteen roles of the Opera, divided into three singers and two dancers, place enormous demands on flexibility. You cannot imagine a more beautiful English pronunciation than dancer Jan Vesala’s. And Claudine Ulrich’s little but lovely voice profiles well against Kristina Hansson’s delicious soprano, Johan Christensson’s increasingly temperamental tenor and the security of John Erik Eleby’s warm bass in the lead role as inventor.
(Svenska Dagbladet, Carl-Gunnar Åhlén, Oct 16, 2008)